Juvenile Court Forever
by Jamison Koehler on March 26, 2010
You are sitting with your client in the basement of the Family Court building. The two of you are in a little cubicle set off from the main room by some makeshift walls. The door is warped and won’t close properly, and your client is distracted by the other kids in their ill-fitting jumpsuits, milling around in front of the T.V. outside, waiting for their turn to be called upstairs to see the judge. Boys from one facility are wearing orange; boys from another are wearing blue.
Although your client has done some terrible things, he will be released today from detention. The prosecutor has agreed to that. But your client will not be going home with his mother. “I am done with that boy,” his mother told you at the last listing as you huddled together in the hallway outside the courtroom. “He can live anywhere but with me.”
So you have worked out an arrangement whereby your client will go to live with his uncle. You are now back in court so that the judge can bless the arrangement. But it is only temporary. The uncle is a nice man, but he has his own children to worry about. He can only take so much responsibility for his sister’s son.
Up until now your client has not said a word. It is not until you get to the part about his being released that he seems to focus on you for the first time.
“You mean I am going home today?” he asks you.
You hear him say “home” and you automatically think of Robert Frost: “Home is where they have to take you when you have to go there.” Or something like that. You can’t quite remember the quotation. You can’t even be sure if it was Frost.
“No,” you say, always the lawyer, always precise. “Not home. But you are being released. You are going to live with your uncle.”
Your client thinks about this for just a moment. Suddenly, no matter what he may have done, he is just an 11-year-old boy. “My uncle?”
“Yes,” you say. “Your uncle.”
“You mean for forever?”
You look at this boy and you think about forever. You think about all the things you have done and all the things you will do during the time period it will take him to reach an age at which he can live without adult supervision. It occurs to you that his mother may reconsider after she has had some time to cool off, after she has had some time for the wounds to heal. But you conclude that, for this little boy, it might as well be for forever.
“It’s going to be alright,” is what you want to say but you can’t because you don’t know if this is true. You think of the words that Yossarian used to comfort Snowden lying wounded in the back of a bomber plane in Catch 22 — “there, there,” said again and again — but you don’t say this either. Instead, you look at the boy and you tell him it is not forever. Nothing is forever. It is just for a little while. Until things are sorted out with your mother.
He does not appear to be reassured. You are not even sure he has heard you because he has already gotten up and is walking back stiffly toward the other kids in the main room. Life happens in moments, and this moment has passed. He is shaking things off. He is moving on.
You watch him go. You realize that, from his perspective, the future is nothing more than a quick visit with the judge, a bologna sandwich and coke for lunch, and then a trip back to the detention center to gather his things. So yes, you think again, this time with more certainty, it will be for forever. And suddenly forever seems like a really long time.